(Image: Bob Fischer and me. The hand-painted jacket, by Bob, features Harpo Marx. The post below is an excerpt from Laughing at the Sun)
Naked Tap-Dancing Zebra Women. Prior to meeting Bob, I had never witnessed a performance by Naked Tap-Dancing Zebra Women. At first glance, one might think this was the name of some 1980s New Wave rock band. But it wasn’t. It was a group of three completely nude (except for a tiny, black G-string) women with their bodies painted, by Bob, to look like zebras …and they tap-danced!
Ask fifty people to define what is art, and you’ll get fifty different answers. Even the art world itself has had trouble with a definitive answer. Marcel Duchamp challenged the classic, traditional idea of art in 1917, when he took a common urinal and placed it in an exhibition calling it, Fountain. About forty-five years later, Andy Warhol painted a Campbell’s soup can label and made it as famous as the Mona Lisa. And now, in the rich tradition of challenging the very definition of art, Robert A. Fischer (formal twin to “Bob”) produced: Naked Tap-Dancing Zebra Women.
This was just one of the acts showcased at Robert A. Fischer’s Cirkus of the Bizzarte, a neo-vaudevillian, performance art extravaganza held at the Germania Club. The Victorian-era structure, built in 1889 on one of the shortest streets in Chicago near the corner of North Avenue and Clark Street, stood in the shadows of Sandburg Village. The event was held on a Saturday night, October 30, 1982, appropriately Halloween eve, and for a mere $15 admission price, patrons could experience Bob’s dark and twisted vision of a modern day urban freak show. Little did I know that attending this event would forever change my life.
The Cirkus of the Bizzarte was not the family-friendly Barnum & Bailey-type of events I had attended as a boy. It was an underground celebration of decadence and debauchery inspired by the Magic Theater featured in Herman Hesse’s novel, Steppenwolf. Fischer’s event had a carnival setting created to seduce one’s senses: visual stimuli; haunting music; erotic scents; intoxicating drinks; and sensuous caresses as you slipped through the throngs of attendees. Instead of elephants, clowns or laughing children, patrons of the Cirkus witnessed fire-eaters, jugglers, strippers, exhibitionists, voyeurs and of course, plenty of performance artists such as the Naked Tap-Dancing Zebra Women and Mistress Regina, the Leather Goddess, who performed in the Whips and Lips Cirkus of Fetishes. Also featured on the promotional handbill designed to look like an old circus poster was a popular ‘80s Chicago area rock band named Jinx, and the “tickler of the ivories and master of the mighty organ,” Hal Pearl, a pianist/organist who had accompanied silent films in movie theaters, as well as provided music for Aragon Ballroom dances during the Big Band era. Of course, my friend Bob had been the Ring Master for this ultra-kinky three-ring spectacle.
Bob staged these events to showcase his paintings, or Bizzarte, as he named them. They consisted of colorful portraits of celebrities, socialites and social outcasts, many of which had costume jewelry fastened to the canvas in appropriate areas around necks or earlobes, giving the image a 3-D feel. Like Warhol, his canvas paintings were bright, kaleidoscopic, pop interpretations of the famous, the erotic, and the grotesque.
“It’s my job as an artist not to paint pretty pictures, but to confront people, to challenge and change their points of view,” Bob once told me. The London Times Art critic John Russell Taylor referred to Bob as “the centre of outrage in America.” Now, this purveyor of outrage was producing a multi-dimensional exhibition of the offbeat, exotic, and erotic in Chicago.
The stage at the Germania Club provided the space for the show, while the walls of the club acted as a gallery for Bob’s artwork. The event itself though, was also a work of art with the performers as his palette of paint, so to speak, and the event as his canvas. These events were never publicly advertised in newspapers, radio or TV with conventional ads. Instead, Bob published eight to twelve page newspapers with snappy text, intriguing promises of exotic, offbeat talent, and images of Bob and his creative team from prior events.
I had just started dating a woman who worked at an advertising agency. She had secured tickets for Cirkus, and wanting to surprise me, simply told me to dress for a provocative Halloween party. I didn’t own anything provocative and it was a very last-minute request, so I needed to create something quickly. Using a simple black mask and some face paint, I developed Satan The Clown, a kind of scary, demented circus freak whose smile brought more terror than laughter. I wore a pair of fingerless, leather gloves to give my alter-persona a subtle sinister touch.
My date accompanied me in her skimpy, sexy black and white silk French maid’s outfit, complete with naughty thigh-high nylons, stiletto heals, and a black mask over her eyes to conceal her identity. We were sexy, yet creepy. We fit right in.
The day after the event, I wrote a letter to the event’s creator, Robert A. Fischer. I explained that I had attended the Cirkus of the Bizzarte and that it was “the most decadent and disgusting display of humanity that I’ve ever seen.” I went on to explain that I loved every minute of it, and asked how I could get involved in future productions.
Bob called me and we set a time to meet for dinner near his apartment on Wells Street, just south of North Avenue in Old Town. We met at a neighborhood restaurant, nothing fancy, and after about an hour of conversation about our common passion for music, art and producing cultural events, Bob offered me the job of being his production manager for his next event, a prom for adults. At that time, my job producing cultural events at a college involved promoting programs that included: stand-up comedians Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, and Richard Lewis; musical talent Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Muddy Waters, Psychedelic Furs, and Joan Jett; and a wide variety of novelty acts who juggled chainsaws, performed with ventriloquist dummies, and hypnotized students. The opportunity to leap from mainstream talent to something more exotic, like working with Naked Tap-Dancing Zebra Women, was an exciting new territory for me to explore. So, it took only a moment for me to shake Bob’s hand as I agreed to be his partner in creating neo-vaudevillian, performance art extravaganzas for the next few years.